Can Derrick Henry make running the ball fashionable again in the NFL?

By Kevin Cole

In an upset that few saw coming, the Tennessee Titans beat the Baltimore Ravens, 28-12, on Saturday. The Ravens were the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and by many projections systems, including PFF’s, the most likely team to hoist the Lombardi trophy at the end of the season.

Now that the Titans have slayed last year’s Super Bowl champion and this year’s favorite, many want to reassess not only their chances to win it all, but also what record-breaking performances by Derrick Henry mean for the future of offensive football.

The only things more predictable than the continued rise of passing are the predictions that now, finally, we’ve moved so far toward newfangled passing offenses that a return of smashmouth football is on the horizon. The most recent prognosticators can be forgiven as Henry has been that good. But is the Titans’ model one for other teams to copy?

Jan 11, 2020; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) smiles on the bench against the Baltimore Ravens in the final minute of the fourth quarter in a AFC Divisional Round playoff football game at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Tennessee's Derrick Henry has rushed for 377 yards in two Titans playoff victories. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Passing is still dominant, still more efficient

Dropback passing as a percentage of total plays has risen steadily since 2006, though there has been a relative lull since 2015. There is no evidence that the longer-term trend will reverse, as the rise in passing has paused for years in the past only to rise again with renewed vigor.


The efficiency of dropping back to pass has also flattened recently. But again, it’s not presaging a fall as much as a temporary plateau. The difference between the efficiency of dropbacks and rushes, in terms of expected points added per play, is near recent highs.

Running plays don’t have upside

If you look at the 12 most valuable offensive plays for the Titans over the first two playoff games, dropbacks make up the majority, even though the Titans dropped back only 39 times versus 74 designed runs.


Only three Henry designed runs make it into the Titans’ top 12 plays. Henry appears as a passer once and a receiver once, but those aren’t due to his efforts in the running game.

One reason why passing makes up so many big plays is that the range of outcomes for pass plays is larger, and they are most often used in high-leverage situations. Third downs are the keys to sustaining drives and scoring points, and teams overwhelmingly pass on third down once there is more than a yard to go. With just 2 yards to go, teams pass on average almost 70 percent of the time, and it rises to over 90 percent once you get to 5 yards to go.

Even the run-dominant Titans have shown a propensity to pass outside of third-and-1, though they’re much more likely to pass on shorter second-down plays. When the chips are down, the Titans still pass, like most NFL teams.

Henry’s two playoff performances have been massive outliers versus the rest of the league, though not as much in terms of efficiency as in volume. Henry’s 30 carries against the Ravens generated 3.5 EPA, with 5.5 coming on a single 66-yard run. In other words, outside of that one run, his rushing EPA was negative on the day, as typical rushing attempts offer slightly negative EPA.

The prior week against the Patriots, Henry generated 2.0 EPA on 34 carries. These are performances that were helpful in winning these games, but nothing that can be counted on in the future and the foundation of an offense in the long run.

Titans offense has been good, not great

The Titans are certainly happy with their performances and two victories, but the outlier Henry performances running the ball haven’t reflected as outlier offensive outputs. The Titans have been only roughly average in terms of points per drive in their two playoff games. In terms of EPA, they’ve fared slightly better, though somewhere between average and the 75th percentile.

The Titans crossed into their opponent’s 40-yard line only seven times in two games and were either extremely efficient or lucky — depending on how you look at it — to score a touchdown all seven times. Both the Patriots and Ravens outgained the Titans on offense and averaged more yards per play. The Henry-led offenses over the past game weren’t the dominating forces that many perceived.

Great running performances produce good games. But an offense with an upside of good shouldn’t be the goal. A team still needs efficient passing to have a truly great offense, and that’s why replicating the success the Titans have had with Derrick Henry won’t become the new NFL trend.

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